Free speech bill ‘could make debating societies more cautious’

Legal accountability may increase early cancellation of hostile speakers as institutions bury booking processes in red tape, Hepi study suggests

十月 13, 2022
Free speech for students

The Westminster government’s controversial university free speech bill might well have a chilling effect on the very exchange it aims to empower, according to a study.

A Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) paper published on 13 October interviews the organisers of debating events on English campuses and considers how they might be affected by the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which would create a new legal channel through which individuals can sue universities and students’ unions if they feel their free speech rights have been infringed.

The study by Hepi researcher Josh Freeman finds that while cancellations of controversial speakers might be reduced by the legislation, it might also dissuade societies and unions from booking them in the first place.

“Beneath the surface, the legislation may have a perverse effect,” writes Mr Freeman, former vice-president of the London School of Economics Debating Society.

“Student organisers must now also contend with the possibility that their event with a controversial speaker leads to a complaint to the Office for Students or involves the society in a legal case.

“As societies often depend on their student union for administrative matters, such as approving events, any chance of souring the relationship may make students think again.”

Interviews with student organisers found that “quiet” no platforming, where speaker invitations were never even sent, was much more common than furore over actual cancellations.

Speakers dropped at the planning stage included figures such as former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond, actor Liam Neeson, ex-prime minister Tony Blair and writer Peter Hitchens.

The analysis found that the Oxbridge debating societies still host the bulk of events, with the University of Cambridge hosting 195 speakers and the University of Oxford 183 in 2021-22, versus just 124 at all other universities.

“The government should work with universities to bring about a cultural shift in the way speaker events are handled and received,” said Mr Freeman, adding that the bill was “an encouraging start”, but that it might make students “more cautious, rather than more adventurous” with speakers.

“Streamlining the bill and supporting students will allow the government to hold universities accountable and encourage students to hold genuinely bold and thought-provoking events,” he said.



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